Eamon Phoenix: The 50th anniversary of the first two deaths of the Troubles
Francis McCloskey and Sam Devenney died in 1969 and opened the doors to the north's bloody legacy. Dr Eamon Phoenix chronicles the events
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first two deaths of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The death of an innocent Derry man, Sam Devenney - as a direct result of a brutal police assault in his own home during rioting coincided with that of Francis McCloskey, an elderly famer during an RUC baton charge in Dungiven, Co Derry.
Since October 5, 1968 the 50-year old unionist state had been rocked to its foundations by the rising challenge of the civil rights movement. The events in Derry on that day as unarmed marchers were batoned by the RUC under the direction of a one-party unionist regime had shocked UK and world opinion.
In the dramatic aftermath, half a century of masterly inactivity by successive Westminster governments at the treatment of the Nationalist minority in its own back yard was reversed as the Labour government of Harold Wilson forced the Stormont cabinet of Terence O’Neill to commit to a raft of reforms which cut through the dams which Craigavon’s ‘Orange State’ had erected to secure its ascendancy in perpetuity.
As a result and in spite of Whitehall pressure, the cabinet baulked at the notion of ‘one man, one vote’ – the iconic civil rights demand. In vain, it seemed, O’Neill warned his colleagues that ‘without a commitment to reform, the British would no longer stand aloof’ and could use the ‘financial lever’ ‘ to the disadvantage of a recalcitrant Northern Ireland’.
From the outset, Wilson recognized the insidious influence of ‘a black reactionary group’ within the O’Neill cabinet centred on William Craig and the able Brian Faulkner while outside, Ian Paisley alleged an IRA conspiracy and used his club-wielding supporters to harass civil rights marches, notably in Armagh on November 30, 1968.
In vain the RUC Inspector General, Sir Albert Kennedy warned the reactionary Home Affairs Minister, Craig on November 25 that the civil rights demand had nothing to do with ‘the old bogey of partition’ but was concerned with inequality. He also warned of the danger of ‘catastrophic conflict’ if the demand for ‘one man, one vote’ was withheld.
As world opinion swung powerfully behind the civil rights campaign and O’Neill warned that ‘Ulster was at the crossroads’, the radical People’s Democracy’s ‘Long March’ form Belfast to Derry at the New Year was savagely ambushed by armed Loyalists at Burntollet on March 4. Scores of young marchers were bludgeoned into the swollen River Faughan by sectarian thugs, some of them B Specials while their RUC escort failed to protect them. It was a miracle that no-one died in the frenzied attack. That night the RUC invaded the Bogside, hurling sectarian abuse at residents.
Burntollet marked a watershed in the deteriorating situation in the North. It fuelled a rise in sectarian tensions, reinvigorated the civil rights campaign and emboldened the unionist right wing. On March 26 the leading Protestant civil rights leader, the late Ivan Cooper- by now an elected MP- had to run the gauntlet of a incensed Loyalist crowd who gate-crashed a civil rights meeting in Limavady Town Hall. Subjected to blood-curdling threats, Cooper had to escorted from the building by the RUC while a leading Orangeman appealed for calm. A shattered Cooper told the Irish News: ‘I got the impression the crowd wanted to kill me. I have never been in a crowd so hostile in my life’
O’Neill, undermined by a series of cabinet resignations over his reform policies, had called a general election in which his hope of a moderate upsurge failed to materialise. The embattled PM finally resigned on April 28, 1969. He was, as he put it, literally ‘blown out of office’ by a series of mysterious explosions at key installations which turned out to be with work of the illegal UVF.
As the uncharismatic country squire, Major Chichester-Clark replaced O’Neill, fresh rioting erupted in Derry on April 19 following a government ban on a civil rights march. Among the casualties was 42-year old Samuel Devenney, a quiet, popular family man who worked as a hearse driver for a local undertaker. As Bishop Edward Daly, then a local curate, records: ‘Sammy was an inoffensive man who did not enjoy robust health.’ He had been chatting to a friend at his front door in William Street when a group of rioters ran though his house to evade arrest. Devenney was then subjected to a savage beating by members of the police force while a senior officer stood by. He sustained serious injuries from which he did not recover. In the aftermath of the attack, Fr Daly visited the house to find ‘blood everywhere’. He noted: ‘None of us had previously witnessed anything like the ferocity of the police action.’
With riot police literally investing the Bogside, the situation threatened to spiral out of control. The situation was only retrieved when John Hume and civic leaders arranged for a mass exodus of local residents to the nearby Creggan. Meanwhile, Hume urged the liberal-minded Minister of Home Affairs, Robert Porter, to order a police withdrawal from the area. Porter agreed and an uneasy peace was restored. However, the gulf between the police and the nationalist community was now unbridgeable.
Meanwhile, as spring turned to summer, sectarian tensions rose in Belfast especially on the Crumlin Road and at Unity Flats, a small Catholic enclave at the foot of the Shankill Road. The RUC were deployed and vigilantes were formed in the Shankill and Ardoyne. On the Twelfth there was serious sectarian rioting in North Belfast, Derry , Lurgan and Dungiven.
James Callaghan, the Labour Home Secretary, noted how the nature of the violence had changed, becoming more insurgent, intense and prolonged. The Sunday Times commented ominously: ‘The monster of sectarian violence is well out of its cage’, particularly in Belfast.
As ever, the most serious trouble was in Derry where hundreds of youths confronted the RUC who used water cannon. At the same time an Orange parade through the nationalist town of Dungiven twenty miles away was the trigger for sustained rioting. The town had been the centre of serious disturbances in 1958 when a non-traditional Orange parade had led to conflict and a boycott of Protestant traders.
At the time the RUC Inspector General had blamed the trouble on Orange ‘hotheads’ from the nearby loyalist village of Bovevagh who had insisted on a provocative march. Since then an Orange hall had been erected in the Dungiven and annual parades forced through the town. As Scarman observed, this was ‘a provocation to Dungiven Catholics in the inflamed conditions of 1969’.
The parade that July 12 faced a peaceful protest but violence erupted that evening when a Catholic crowd of 300 attacked the Orange hall. In response, the outlying Orangemen threatened to come in from the countryside to defend the building. According to evidence given to the Scarman Tribunal later, on the night of 13/14 July, as rioting continued, Head Constable Irwin and a dozen constables launched a baton charge. The 200-strong nationalist crowd retreated and, in the melee, police saw a man lying on the footpath . This was Francis McCloskey (66), a local farmer . He died in hospital a few hours later from head injuries. He was the first official victim of the Troubles (1968-94).
As Scarman noted: ‘The death of Mr McCloskey became a cause celebre in Northern Ireland.’ Though the police denied any contact with the fleeing crowd it was widely alleged that Mr McCloskey had been ‘a victim of police brutality’. Over 4000 people attended his funeral on July 17 where Fr George Doherty told mourners that no injustice justified the use of violence.
As McCloskey was being laid to rest, word spread in Derry of the death of Sam Devenney, three months after being assaulted by the RUC. An investigation by a senior RUC officer had unearthed ‘a conspiracy of silence’ among the force. Over 20,000 people followed Mr Devenney’s coffin to the City Cemetery.
Ironically on that same day, July 20, the outside world was enraptured by images of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. However, as Bishop Daly noted wryly: ‘This event was hardly noticed in Derry. We were too preoccupied with events on this planet.’
The two deaths were accompanied by the Government decision to mobilise 400 B Specials - a notorious sectarian force. Indeed, on the night of July 14 a party of Specials had opened fire on a crowd of dancers emerging from the Castle Ballroom in Dungiven. The minister had forbidden the issuing of firearms to them.
It was against this background of increasing mayhem that John Hume rushed to London to apprise the British government of the seriousness of the developing situation as the Apprentice Boys march, scheduled for Derry on 13 August, loomed ahead.
Visibly exhausted by having ‘to act as Police Chief’ in Derry’, as told Con Howard, an Irish diplomat in London, Hume described Derry as a ‘powder-keg. Chichester-Clark’s government had lost control of the situation; there was mounting polarization across the North; intimidation of Catholics in Belfast and the real prospect of ‘a blood-bath’.
The Derryman put his grave concerns to Lord Stonham, Callaghan’s deputy at the Home Office, at a three-hour meeting on 24 July 1969. In his view, the only course of action was the suspension of the Stormont government and the appointment of a Parliamentary Commission backed by the British army.
Stonham listened politely but it was clear that the Wilson government was unprepared, in Callaghan’s phrase, to be ‘sucked into the Irish bog’. Northern Ireland was clearly on the verge of disaster.
*Dr Eamon Phoenix is an historian and commentator and a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries.